To be honest, one of the main reasons to write this blog was the chance to use the headline – which probably needs some explanation. And if the explanation doesn’t make too much sense then I can only blame jet-lag and a degree of digital health overload from attending the first day of the HIMSS Europe 2019 digital health conference in Helsinki, Finland.
And just to be even more inexplicable, the main theme of this blog is – as it has been a few times this year – AI and its applications in health care.
It is currently impossible to avoid AI as a conference theme/main topic of conversation at health technology or digital health conferences. In fact, as this conference goes on in Helsinki another conference in Boston dedicated specifically to AI and machine learning is just about to begin. To quote from an AI session description here at HIMSS: “Personalized medicine, predictive analytics, augmented diagnostics, real-time processing of wearable data… AI is buzzing and feeding our imaginations with hopes and dreams of a truly data-driven healthcare with optimal clinical and financial outcomes.”
But what struck me while listening to that well-attended sessions is that AI has morphed from Big Data as a major theme in digital health care.
Remember how just a few years ago everybody was talking about Big Data (with the capitals) and the potential benefits for care delivery from the incredible amount of data being accumulated on all aspects of people’s health? Well, it is clear that this theme has been coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence to take the potentiality to another level. Now when speakers – such as those from the Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) talk about the “data lake” they are filling with a wide range of genetic, demographic and health data from their patients, they are doing it in the context of taking all of this information to create algorithms to enable AI use.
In fact, according to session moderator Dr. Mikka Korja, a neurosurgeon at HUS, Helsinki is one of the world leaders in exploring the use of AI in health care with 100 projects underway here.
That data are critical to effectively utilizing AI in health care is without question. But, as speakers repeatedly noted, it is not just the quantity of data points needed to create effective algorithms but also the quality of data required. It is clear that effective use of AI is impossible without standardized digitized data collected in an electronic format. The point was also made that most health care organizations are currently not configured to continually gather data and feed it back into the system in a manner that is required to develop AI functionality.
Most of the speakers at the HIMSS session discussed the potential applications for AI to improve clinical diagnosis and this remains the most sexy aspect of AI. Yet, I thought it was actually Dr. Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director at Accenture Health, who gave the most compelling presentation when he noted that enhanced diagnosis is actually one of the more challenging roles for AI to play in health care. During question period he noted that that for AI to augment diagnosis requires a high level of machine learning with masses of data which might require years of work and with all of this compounded by dealing with privacy and security concerns.
Where AI can and will have a huge impact, Dr. Safavi said, is in cost reduction and improving the consumer experience, in addition to outcome improvement. He argued that effective use of AI will help reduce staffing requirements and increase capacity at a time when “we’re running out of people to provide health care.”
Dr. Safavi also quoted an Accenture study showing the main benefits from AI in health care will come in areas unrelated to diagnosis with the biggest estimated potential benefits being in the areas of; robot-assisted surgery, virtual nursing assistants, administrative workflow assistance, and fraud detection.
For all the hype you hear about using AI to better detect melanoma or leprosy, Dr. Safavi’s comments are worth serious consideration.
Oh and about that headline. For those unfamiliar with Finnish culture, Moomins are an incredibly popular family of fictional creatures created by Tove Jansson in the 1940s and featured in books, comic books, TV, plush toys etc. And at a conference in Finland who could resist working them into a headline.